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What does it mean to own a game today?
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What does it mean to own a game today?



Owning games is becoming a hot topic. There has been a landmark case in France that has brought into focus the question of who owns a digitally bought game. The issue is that when you buy a digital video game what exactly are you buying?

With physical media that question is easier to answer but today even physical has limitations with ownership. Buying a disc can give you the freedom to do with it as you wish. You can lend it to a friend, sell it or keep it forever. A physical disc is a tangible product that you know you own because you can see and touch it. For all intent and purposes – it’s a real thing. This could make appropriating value on something tangible easier than something digital because of ownership. If I own a physical product, that same product is not owned by you. If I own access to a digital code, you too can own access as well at no detriment to me.

If you read the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) that comes with a digital video game purchase, you will find that, in most cases, you are buying timed access to a game.  Essentially you get access to the game so long as the company that holds the 1s and 0s on their master server gives you the right of access. Given that most licences are attached to a single online profile the licence cannot be re-sold, or passed on, or lent. For a one time purchase you have rented the game for a lifetime.

In the entertainment field the issue of not having an alternative to digital seems acute to video games. For example, you can buy music digitally or buy CDs. You can buy movies and TV shows digitally or buy DVDs, Blu-Rays and boxsets. You can buy either eBooks or buy books in print. It is the same with comics and magazines. Today some games for consoles and handhelds are only available to buy digitally. Almost all small indie games are bought digitally, even if some of the most popular games like Limbo, for example, made it onto disc. Even some AA (or medium sized) games, like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice can only be bought digitally. For the PC the situation is accentuated. The domination of online stores like Steam has seriously impacted the market for disc-based games for the platform.

The problem of ownership extends to disc-based games as well, but the issue is more ambiguous. Earlier I stated that disc-based games are something tangible that you can do as you wish. The biggest advantage of physical is that it has retained value. Physical games can be resold or exchanged for money, something that cannot be done with digital games. A lot of physical games are not beholden to the internet to work and that can be valuable enough for those with internet caps or slow speeds. The issue arises when physical games require you to enter online credentials, or sign into a server. This then clouds the issue of ownership once “accessibility” comes into question.

There is also the issue of patches. Games today require huge patches that need to be downloaded from a server somewhere otherwise they will not play as intended or not play at all. Some games are so big in size that the disc alone cannot contain the whole game and some of it must be downloaded. Consequently, owning a disc-based game may not actually mean owning the game outright if the game itself needs a digital presence.

Does any of this matter? Personally, I own over 300 games digitally and I have never lost sleep thinking that one day I will never get access to my games. For other people, however, this is a subject that does bother them. Recently in France a consumer group, UFC Que Choisir, won a landmark case in the French courts over the PC digital gaming platform Steam, owned by Valve. They won the right to re-sell their digitally bought games. They won the argument that they own the game to sell it on as if it were a physical product. Valve is in the process of appealing the case with the defence that you are not actually buying games but getting access to a lifetime subscription for every game purchased. (In my opinion if Valve were to lose the appeal, they would probably pay the fine which comes to approximately half a million Euros. A drop in the bucket for Valve, I presume).

For the consumer the idea of “owning” a digitally bought game seems appealing until the practicality of re-selling is realised. It can be a lot harder compared to disc-based games. For example if I were to sell my Steam game to someone else, Valve would have to prevent me from accessing the game, which ultimately means Valve will still has control on who has access to the game. Valve will have to be involved in the transaction somewhere down the chain to activate the code for the new owner. Do I tell Valve I sold it to someone else? To make matters more complicated some games require multiple registrations with publishers or developers, who would co-ordinate all these registrations and de-registrations?

Re-selling a digital game would mean the game will be “re-produced” with no degrading of quality. So, unlike a physical disc, which has retained value due to its scarcity, there could be no limit to the number of times a digital game can be reproduced. This could potentially drive the price down of used digital games very quickly if millions are on the market so soon after a game release. A market for used digital licence keys could become a race to the bottom especially if there are no shipping costs and the transaction could be done in seconds. I do not think a publisher of a game will be happy if reselling digital keys quickly devalued their brand. What would be the incentive to buy new? Would Valve restrict the number of new licence keys sold to just one licence per user?  Would refunds be possible if the transaction goes wrong? Could the digital keys be transferred back to the original owner if the transaction goes wrong?

The upshot of all these questions is do I own a digital game to do with it as I wish like I would if I owned a disc-based game? If the game needs to be downloaded from a server that is beyond my control, where does ownership begin or end?

So far, the gaming industry has done very well in the digital sphere. The growth in DLC and microtransactions revenues means that most people are comfortable buying on digital. The question of re-selling digital games has not been a purchase barrier, maybe not until now. As digital purchases become omnipresent and gain market share at the expense of physical disc-based games, some people are being to question what if choice to re-sell has been taken away forever. It becomes a legitimate question of consumer rights.

The fact is owing games has changed. It is not ownership in the classic sense but it has now become a contract of trust that when you buy a digital game you can play it whenever you like and download it as many times you like. At this moment in time, a lifetime subscription to a licence to a video game does not feel any different to owning it as if it were a physical disc-based game. As consumers we like to feel we are in control of what we buy. If one day in the future the only option is to buy digital, then the right to re-sell will come into focus for many than just for UFC Que Choisir.

Sam Naji
Consultant and analyst at B2Boost